Contempt of Court

Power Politics. By Arundhati Roy. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001. $12.

One of the most dramatic psychological transformations that neoliberalism has wrought upon India is this: the public discourse is now characterized by a tremendous sense of impatience with the poor. From the old, however hollow pieties such as Garibi Hatao (Eliminate Poverty!), we now have the bizarre counterpoint where India is the only nation in the world to have a 'Ministry of Disinvestments,' where over forty million tons of food grain rots in government warehouses while starvation takes its toll all over the country, where over 40% of the nation's budget goes to service interest payments, and yet the dominant discourse is to blame the nation's woes on its 'sluggish path to liberalization.' The present government of India has arrogated a series of unfortunate priorities to itself. At the forefront, of course, is the building of a Ram Mandir (Ram temple) at Ayodhya, as a paean to Hindutva machismo. However, its other agendas include the nuclearization of the region, a commitment to building large dams and the privatization of the nation's infrastructure by selling public sector firms to local and global corporations.

Such an agenda obviously makes them regard Arundhati Roy as one of their worst enemies. Ever since she won the Booker Prize for her wildly successful novel The God of Small Things, Roy has chosen to put her fiction writing on hold, and write long essays that are causing great embarrassment to Indian nationalists. First came "The End of Imagination," which exposed the complete lunacy of India's nuclear tests. Then we had "The Greater Common Good," which uncovered the hidden interest groups and the extraordinary cruelty toward displaced villagers by the government as it attempted to build the Sardar Sarovar Project across the Narmada river. Finally, "Power Politics: The Reincarnation of Rumpeltstiltskin," which forms a centerpiece of the book under review, showed how a nexus between government officials, local and global capitalists operates to disenfranchise the people. Just as "The Greater Common Good" linked large dams to nuclear interests, "Power Politics" draws linkages between international call centers in Gurgaon that make techno-coolies out of the Indian labor force, the shakhas (violent gangs) of the right-wing RSS that perpetrate a violent form of cultural nationalism, and the Narmada valley, where local capitalists and the police wreak violence on indigenous people who take a stand for their survival.

Roy's writing is scalpel-sharp, and her choice of causes is extremely contentious. However, I have always been mystified at the sheer intensity of hatred she provoked, especially among my educated and urbane friends, who professed neutrality on most issues until confronted by one of her articles, whereupon they would proceed to get frothy at the mouth and incoherently abusive. It is not as if she is the only writer to have protested these issues.

Perhaps the bitterness lies in the sense of betrayal that the Indian elite feels. It is not so much what is being said, but rather who is saying it. This was the same woman who was shown all over the media, in her wine colored sari, as she exclaimed 'Gosh!' when informed that she had won the Booker. That same woman who acted in that ultra-urban college movie 'In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones," about the campus culture of Delhi University. How dare she use the craft she perfected while talking to us against us, and somehow imply that we have anything to do with the displacement of Gujarati villagers!

Indeed, Roy's acerbic pen does get the better of her. Her put-downs of various groups are devastating, if sometimes unfortunate. They do draw chuckles though. In this book, for example, she mentions the Naga Sadhu of the Kumbh Mela "who towed the District Commissioner's car with his penis, while the Commissioner sat in it solemnly with his wife and children." Or when she speculates about why Ogden corporation, a company that manufactures garbage incinerators in the U.S. and S Kumars, an Indian textile company that manufactures 'suiting blends,' entered in a Memorandum of Understanding. "Now what might garbage incinerators and suiting blends have in common? Suit Incineration? Guess again. Garbage-blends? Nope. A big hydroelectric dam..." The effectiveness of this invective lies not just in the surreality of the situations Roy chooses, but in the words she expresses them in. She demonstrates a familiarity with the lingo, and structures her jokes to make her targets look abjectly foolish (a hilarious, if scary, essay in the present book consists of her response to a Supreme Court case against her, based on an oafish petition filed by a group of people whose atrocious command over English rendered them easy targets of her ridicule). In many ways, Roy mixes her egalitarian focus with intellectual elitism in troubling ways -- one can almost see the felicity of a domestic partner in the ways in which she pushes the buttons of India's liberal elite with uncanny familiarity. That explains why they froth at the mouth at her in ways they do not at other literary figures like Amitava Ghosh who write against India's nuclearization, or other popular interlocutors of globalization like Amartya Sen. Roy's growing unpopularity with the liberal elite is perhaps the best index of her effectiveness.

It is not as if Roy is unaware of her potential loss of popularity. Indeed, her first essay, "The End of Imagination," had prophesied this loss of heroine status. That in the year following her Booker, she had had so much of fame, adulation, envy and prizes, "...that the whole of the rest of my life was going to be vaguely unsatisfying. And, therefore, the only perfect ending to the story would be death. My death." Power Politics, like Arundhati Roy's previous essays, appear to be a determined attempt by her to kill herself.

However, and luckily for us, rumors of her death are indeed exaggerated. Roy continues to grow in stature through her passionate polemics (in hindsight, what else could we expect from someone who wrote as intensely political a novel as The God of Small Things?). Her writings accuse the Indian state of weaving a tangled web of religious fundamentalism, nuclear lunacy, complete disregard for civil rights of indigenous people, and an abject capitulation to the violent excesses of Globalization as manifested by its wooing of Enron, Ogden and the World Bank. At the same time, she celebrates the vibrancy of those who speak truth to power in India, 'the maverick Malayali professor (K N Panikkar) who petitions the president every day against the communalization of history texts, Sunderlal Bahuguna, who risks his life on indefinite hunger strikes protesting the Tehri Dam, the Adivasis (indigenous people) in Jaduguda protesting uranium mining on their lands,' the Koel Karo Sanghathan resisting a mega-dam project in Jharkhand, the awe-inspiring Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the relentlessly dogged Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the Beej Bachao Andolan in Tehri-Garhwal fighting to save biodiversity of fields, and of course, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the people's movement in the Narmada valley."

The power of Roy's writing on contemporary political matters lies in her ability to identify both the issues and the ethical imperatives of our times with simplicity and vividness. Fact, figure and polemic fuse together in a seamless production that is part plea, part accusation and all passion. Consider for example, the following statement:

On October 18, 2000, in one of the most extraordinary legal decisions in post-independence India, the Supreme Court [of India] permitted the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River to proceed. The court did this despite indisputable evidence placed before it that the Sardar Sarovar Project did not have the mandatory environmental clearance from the central government. Despite the fact that no comprehensive studies have ever been done on the social and ecological impact of the dam. Despite the fact that in the last 15 years not one single village has been resettled according o the project's own guidelines, and that there was no possibility of rehabilitating the four hundred thousand people who would be displaced by the project. In effect, the Supreme Court has virtually endorsed the violation of human rights to life and livelihood.

In a single paragraph, Roy conveys the sheer enormity of the Supreme Court decision, her conviction that this decision is fundamentally unjust, and the fact that it is premised on assurances (of resettlement of the villagers) that have been flouted with impunity in the past. She paints a picture of a people who have been abandoned by the state, which is overtly elitist. Lest anyone miss out on any 'subtext,' she elaborates further in a later chapter that the court is not necessarily 'corrupt': "the reflexive instinct of the powerful to protect the powerful is sufficient explanation for [this] iniquitous judgment." Once the words are read, one finds oneself hopelessly involved in this injustice, like a secret-sharer. The need to speak out against this becomes the very ethical imperative that Roy appears to follow in the crafting of her arguments.

Roy's current set of essays is not as meticulously referenced and footnoted as her earlier ones, which were published in a book titled "The Greater Common Good." However, they provide a vital primer to those of us who have a vague sense of disquiet about globalization, but are unable to give articulate voice to it. It is a profoundly depressing book, but one that articulates the imperatives of struggle in spite of the imminence of defeat. One is reminded of Faiz's immortal words:

Haan, talkhi-ye ayyam abhi aur barhe gi
Haan, ahl-e sitam mashq-e sitam karte rahen ge
Manzoor ye talkhi, ye sitam hum ko gavaara
Dam hai to madaava-ye alam karte rahen ge

Yes, the bleakness of the days will only increase
And yes, the tyrants will continue to hone their craft
We accept this bleakness, this tyranny we accept
For if we are brave, we will give voice to our pain

Roy articulates an equally vibrant and upbeat manifesto: "What we need to search for and find, what we need to hone and perfect into a magnificent shining thing, is a new kind of politics. Not the politics of governance, but the politics of resistance. The politics of opposition. The politics of forcing accountability. The politics of slowing things down. The politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction. In the present circumstances, I'd say that the only thing worth globalizing is dissent. It's India's best export.


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